Ghostly fees for Hillary's scribes?

January 04, 2001|By Bill Thomas

EVEN SOME of her most faithful media supporters are now wondering if Hillary Rodham Clinton may have gotten a little too greedy when she accepted an $8 million advance to write her White House memoirs. The New York Times, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton's successful Senate bid, called her book deal "an affront to common sense."

"You don't have to be a hypocritical Clinton-hater to be concerned," admitted Joe Conason, a columnist for the New York Observer, who's defended the soon-to-be ex-first lady regularly for eight years.

When asked by Washington Post reporters if Mrs. Clinton was worried about such negative reaction, a spokeswoman sternly replied that her boss was in full compliance with the law, noting in familiar Clintonian style, "She has had the benefit of some very, very good advice from extremely seasoned lawyers."

Conveniently arranged before she officially started work on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Clinton's book contract is unlikely to do more than raise a few eyebrows among her jealous Senate colleagues, most of whom would love to command that kind of money for their typically unreadable tomes.

True, Mrs. Clinton may look like a lawmaker who'd been bought and paid for even before she was sworn in. But in terms of congressional economics it all makes perfect sense. Members of the House and Senate operate as 535 individual profit centers, and none could exist for long without the generous support of special interests like Viacom, the parent media conglomerate of Simon & Schuster that just agreed to pay Mrs. Clinton's advance.

But this doesn't answer the most intriguing financial question posed by Mrs. Clinton's book, namely who will help her write it and how much will that unfortunate hack be paid.

A busy freshman senator can't take valuable time away from her legislative duties to produce a personal memoir. In fact, few celebrity authors have the time or the talent to write their own books. Which is why, under normal circumstances, the lure of an $8-million project like this one might be expected to start a virtual ghostwriters' gold rush. But any book "by" Hillary Clinton should come with special warning.

Consider "It Takes a Village," Mrs. Clinton's 1996 best seller on raising children, also published by Simon & Schuster. Maryland-based ghostwriter Barbara Feinman-Todd worked with Mrs. Clinton on that book. A veteran in the as told-to trade, having assisted former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey on their books, Ms. Feinman-Todd wasn't looking for much from Mrs. Clinton besides a sentence in the acknowledgments section and, of course, her collaboration payment, both of which were written into her contract.

But if working with the Clintons can be costly, writing with them can also take its toll.

All went well until Ms. Feinman-Todd learned from reporters, who'd gotten a look at the galleys, that there was no acknowledgment. Then she heard a rumor in the media that she had been fired, which was untrue. Later, when she tried to collect the final installment of her $120,000 fee, she was told that the White House didn't want her paid.

A few calls to New York from Washington friends got her a check for her work and another to cover the bills she'd piled up in Clinton-related legal matters. Yet hers is a ghost story every potential Hillary Clinton collaborator should know.

While the Clintons were house hunting in Washington recently, it was reported that their new home would need to be big enough to accommodate "the researchers" who will be helping Mrs. Clinton on her book. How and when they're to be paid may never be known.

Mrs. Clinton has already said she plans to donate a portion of her book proceeds to charity. But considering the record, it's safe to assume her ghostwriter -- or will it be ghostwriters? -- can expect a percentage that's considerably less charitable and a whole lot harder to collect.

Bill Thomas, the former editor of Capital Style magazine, is the author of "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill" (Dutton, 1994). He also ghost wrote "Lawyers and Thieves" (Simon & Schuster, 1990) for the late trial attorney, Roy Grutman.

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